By Sarah Mansheim
Rural folks: don’t cancel your satellite internet plan just yet.
Last week, Frontier Communications announced a $38 million partnership with the Connect America Fund to increase broadband access in West Virginia. The phone and cable company said it will connect outlying areas of Greenbrier County with broadband internet service using a $1.8 million grant in order to bring broadband to 4,200 homes here. However, that will take years to become a reality, and Frontier has declined to specify exactly where in Greenbrier County the broadband is set to expand.
“ The FCC will release the funds in August, and we have until the end of 2017 to complete the first 40 percent of the build out. The agency considers this a six-year project and it will likely take every bit of that to complete,” said Frontier Communications Manager of Government and External Affairs Kathy Cosco. “While we know everyone wants to know where and when we will be starting, there’s still a lot of work to be done before we get to that point.”
The Federal Communication Commission reports that nearly one in three rural Americans lack access to broadband internet. In Greenbrier County, internet users without broadband access use either satellite internet, provided by HughesNet or Exede (also known as Wild Blue), both of which have data caps of 20 gigabytes and 25 gigabytes, respectively, or utilize their cell phone providers, and “hot spots” and expensive signal boosters, to provide at-home internet service.
The 20-25 gigabyte data caps can make it difficult for families to use the internet the way those in town who have broadband do – they simply do not have the ability to stream Netflix, music and videos without quickly reaching the allotted data cap. Once the data cap is reached, the satellite services put customers into “data restriction,” effectively shutting down the signal. Customers then either must pay an additional $10 for one more gig of data, or endure having no internet during daytime and evening hours until the next billing cycle begins.
Satellite internet is much more expensive, too. Packages with HughesNet start at $49.99 per month, whereas, currently, Frontier packages start at $19.99 per month. Frontier’s most expensive package is being advertised $49.99 per month. Satellite internet customers must also purchase a satellite dish, which can cost several hundred dollars.
Customers who opt to use their cell phone plans to bring internet service to their homes also pay a much higher rate than Frontier customers. They often must purchase a “hot spot” box – which start at under $20 and go up from there – and a signal booster, which cost upwards of $300. They must also pay for a robust data plan from their cell phone carrier. Fifteen gigs of data from AT&T, a provider who usually has a decent signal in the woods and hollows, costs $175 per month for three devices (which would allow for two parents and one child).
The FCC, through its Connect America Fund, is hoping to remedy this broadband gap. Along with the $1.8 million slated for Greenbrier County, Fayette County is set to receive nearly $1.4 million, Raleigh County is set to receive $388,000 and Summers County will receive $1.4 million in grant funding. In a press release about the Connect America Fund, the FCC said the grants are intended to “efficiently and effectively administer that support to expand broadband in rural areas where market forces alone can’t support expansion.”
It just may take a while.